Life Wellbeing Helicopter parents: Stepping back improves mental health says new study
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Helicopter parents: Stepping back improves mental health says new study

A new study finds that when parents allow small children to make mistakes and play independently, their stress levels go down. Photo: Getty
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There’s plenty of research suggesting that helicopter parenting – sometimes known as ‘stalking your toddler’ – has some profound downsides for too-loved children.

One idea is that helicopter parenting, where children are rescued from struggling and failing, fosters failure in later life.

One new study, from the University of Wollongong, found that “remembered childhood experiences of being overprotected, overvalued and experiencing leniency in parental discipline, were associated with higher traits of pathological narcissism in young people.”

It also found that excessively pampered children were prone to “grandiose and vulnerable narcissistic traits, characterised by the young person expressing unrealistic self-views, entitlement beliefs and impaired autonomy.”

But what about the clinging parents? Are they okay?

A new study finds that allowing small children and babies to explore and play independently is good for their parents’ mental health.

The research, from Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences, is based on what’s known as the Respectful Approach intervention.

The Respectful Approach “guides parents to treat young children as capable and independent humans who can flourish if given safe space and freedom from too much adult direction.”

In a world-first experiment, the researchers found that parents who took part in a Respectful Approach class for infants or toddlers over six weeks – where they observed their children in uninterrupted play in a room with age appropriate toys – reported “significantly lower stress” than a control group who were free to intervene and rescue their little ones during play.

Mandy Richards did the research as part of her PhD. She says some parents found it hard to not intervene. Photo: Mandy Richards

“Participants in the study reported worrying less about performance pressure after attending the classes, which let them refocus on their relationship with their children,” said Ms Mandy Richardson, a Perth-based early childhood educator who conducted the experiment as part of her PhD.

“As parents we tend to go and ‘save’ our children when they start to struggle with something, instead of letting them try to resolve their own challenges.

“But if the children aren’t looking for help, perhaps they can be left to do their own thing and work it out themselves.”

In a statement from Edith Cowan, Ms Richardson said the Respectful Approach is ultimately about building a trusting, lasting bond with positive communication between parents and children. There is less focus on checklists and achieving milestones, with acknowledgement that each child is different.

What’s the point of difference?

Ms Richardson explained the Respectful Approach helps to establish good patterns in early years so children learn to build confidence in their abilities and to deal with conflict in emotionally intelligent ways.

“Traditionally early behavioural interventions have predominantly focused on modifying undesirable child behaviours,” Ms Richardson said.

“By building good communication and a close parent-child bond, we can potentially prevent problems occurring in the long term.”

Overprotective parenting can be detrimental to kids, research shows. Photo: Getty

Ms Richardson and her research supervisor, Associate Professor Therese O’Sullivan, are now expanding the pilot study to track parents and children over three years to determine whether the decline in parental stress levels has a lasting impact and investigate long term outcomes in child development.

The New Daily and Ms Richardson discussed the project further in an  email conversation:

TND: How was the experiment was structured?

Our sample size was 38 – this included 15 parents in our intervention group (six parents with infants and nine parents with toddlers) and 23 parents of children under age two in the control group.

The infants were aged between four and eight months and the toddlers were sixteen to twenty months old.

Separate infant and toddler Respectful Approach intervention classes were conducted in small groups in order to meet the developmental differences in these age groups.

Parents in the intervention group attended six weeks of the Respectful Approach intervention parent-child classes with either their infant or toddler once a week for one hour.

The same parent was required to attend each week and was not permitted to bring any other children along to the class to enable better focus.

As a part of the intervention, parents were asked to remain in the same area in the room so that their child could explore and return to them as needed. Infants who were not fully mobile yet were laid on their backs in front of their parents on a play mat and played with nearby objects as parents observed their self directed activity.

They were asked to observe without interruption, while the facilitators engaged with the children only as necessary.

This session concluded with group discussion about what was observed. Parents were also provided with weekly handouts and reflective questions pertaining to each principle.

TND: Did the parents struggle to let go?

Parents reported that in the first class they found it more difficult to remain in one location and simply observe instead of direct or intervene in their child’s activity but as the weeks went by they became more comfortable with the practice of observation.

TND: What was the outcome with the control group?  

The control group received no extra attention. Our data showed over the six week period that their stress increased.

TND: What is your thinking on what happened next with the newly-educated families. Being part of the study was one thing, but taking on the lessons, so to speak, in every day life would be harder, no?

Many reported their perceptions about their child’s abilities and their parent role shifted, which helped them to allow more freedom outside the classes. One parent said they used to feel the need to fix any emotion their child had immediately and the classes helped them to see their child’s emotions as a healthy part of their development.

Many report that being a part of the study set them in a direction to continue to formulate their parenting beliefs and approach along a similar vein to the principles they were exposed to through the study.